Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Hemingway Solution

We are always in the midst of our own destruction. Last night I saw this so clearly, and now in the light of day the dark clarity of that moment is fading. Somehow I understand the fleeting, evanescent state of the human condition. Recognition that at some point we all die is an intellectual abstract that our consciousness cannot grasp since Being does not include Not Being.

Yet my human condition moves inevitably toward its own destruction. I struggle on a slippery slope and my optimistic intuition suggests that even though I will slip into oblivion, somehow the universe will rescue and preserve my awareness. It is this awareness that defines and makes the universe what it is. Without awareness, the universe is nothing.

Beneath my hope is that existential angst that drives me toward some control of my exit strategy---especially since my entry into the human condition was beyond my control (or so we surmise). I fully understand Hemingway's solution. Once there is no further hope, at least there is some integrity in controlling when to say Goodbye to All That. Yes, goodbye and good riddance if I am betrayed by my belief. Not that there is anything I can do about it anyway (or so I surmise).

Last night I lay in a stupor, having finished Young-Ha Kim's extraordinary book I Have The Right to Destroy Myself. Chi Young Kim's translation is riveting, but one can see beneath the words to the spiritual bedrock of the text, touch the mind of the author who has achieved a poetic level that helps me understand myself as an artist who is just passing by or passing through, if you will. I envy my Korean friends who read the text in its original Korean because I know that language is more cinematic than English. But to get back to last night. My existential dilemma was much clearer than now as I lay in a text-induced delirium with hallucinations defining my understanding. Kim begins his novel by describing Jacques-Louis David's famous painting, The Death of Marat. Marat lies, murdered, in his bath:
I have already tried to make a copy of this painting several times. The most difficult part is Marat's expression; he always comes out looking too sedate. In David's Marat, you can see neither the dejection of a young revolutionary in the wake of a sudden attack nor the relief of a man who has escaped life's suffering. His Marat is peaceful but pained, filled with hatred but also with understanding. Through a dead man's expression David manages to realize all of our conflicting innermost emotions. ...We should all emulate David. An artist's passion shouldn't create passion. An artist's supreme virtue is to be detached and cold.
I am transported to years earlier when I wrote an opera libretto that included a critic who shared this conviction of detachment as a virtue, the daemonic divorce of feeling and reason. I know that I am in for an adventure as this author is measured, always in control, always shrouded in mystery masquerading as clarity, a genius of misdirection. I am concerned that critics have described his work as perverse because that never occurred to me as I read his text.

Through this beginning Kim has set the tone for revealing a mystery. Perhaps the narrative is real, or perhaps this is the fiction of a writer who lurks calmly on the outskirts as the main character, but then recedes assuming all identities of the narrative. Are the characters in this book simply the novel the author is editing? The writer is the book. He is the wizard pulling the strings. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" Yet, he is calm and unflustered --- detached.

I am anything but detached. In my state I am everyone in the book. Kim ends with The Death of Sardanapal by Delacroix. It is the death of the king's steeds, his concubines, all brightly lit as a delightful spectacle of murder and mayhem, while in the upper left corner you discover the detached figure of Sardanapal in the shadows. At first you might think he is watching an orgy, but on closer scrutiny you see the knives thrust deep, the writhing, dying women, Sardanapal presiding over the death of his kingdom and the fall of Babylon. His actions have taken him to his own demise. Now I begin and end in the utter detachment of death, just like the narrative structure.

The symmetry of Kim's narrative almost pulverizes me as I discover that it mirrors my own quest for literary and artistic symmetry. I find myself reeling in the vortex of passions unleashed but casually contained. There are the brothers at odds and quietly at war, each a polarity of each other. There is the writer editing his novel and servicing his "clients." These three men are balanced by three women, Judith, perhaps Klimt's Judith, and Mimi, the stunning artist whose explosive work challenges the premise of artmaking, and the woman from Hong Kong. Even as I write this, I know there is no stability, the terrain shifts even as I unravel the mystery. It becomes clear that Kim IS Sardanapal oddly detached as the reality he has constructed deconstructs, just as HE was Marat in the opening, calm and coolly dead, filled with hatred and understanding.

My own fantasies mix in and I understand why the novel is about self destruction...and my own disintegration continues like some subtext to this narrative. I see Hemingway nodding and smiling in approval in the confusion of my cluttered, unlighted room. I am worried that I am Sardanapal presiding over my own deconstruction. Everyone is me and I am them in a feverish delusion of dimensions where I disappear into the text, now streaming as an alternate reality...

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